World-class Filipino

THE RECENT 25th anniversary celebration of our People Power Revolution reminded us of the world’s acclamation of former President Cory Aquino as the “Icon of Democracy.” Our “yellow revolution” in 1986 reverberated in the dismantling in 1989 of the once-monolithic Soviet Union and the “colored” birth of new sovereign states like Ukraine, Georgia, Lithuania and several Eastern European nations. Echoes of that political metanoia are now heard in the Middle East, where democratic revolutions are toppling entrenched dictatorships.

New paradigm of free expression. As I continue to reflect on this saga, I salute our other great “kababayans” who have made us proud to be Filipino. There is Manny Pacquiao, Planet Earth’s pound-for-pound king of the boxing ring. There is Lea Salonga who has conquered the performing arts in New York, London and other elite stages of the world. There is Jaime Augusto Zobel de Ayala who, in 2007, was the first Filipino conferred the highest alumni award of the Harvard Business School. There is Efren Peñaflorida Jr. who was chosen the “CNN Hero of 2009,” besting 9,000 nominees from over 100 countries.

And just a few days ago, another world-class Filipino, Mahar Mangahas, president of the Social Weather Stations (SWS) and Inquirer columnist, was chosen—after a world-wide search—to receive the rare “Alumni Medal” of the University of Chicago Alumni Association. He was cited for his contribution to the creation and development of a new paradigm of free expression—opinion polling.

Like the Nobel Prize, this award is given after a thorough international search without the knowledge of the nominees. To appreciate its value, let me say that freedom of expression, traditionally understood, includes several other rights like the freedom of speech, of the press, of assembly, of petition, of religion, of association and of access to public information. It even encompasses the freedom to be silent and the right not to listen.

Mutating freedom. In the distant past, language—whether verbal or written—was the primary mode of free expression. Thus, whenever people delivered speeches, preached sermons, shouted slogans, scribbled graffiti, wrote poems, sang songs and staged plays, they were really exercising their right to free expression.

Then came the less obvious, non-verbal modes of free expression, such as flags, caricatures, cartoons, floats, logos, clenched fists and the picket lines of silent protestors. These latter forms may be wordless, but often they communicate more tellingly than the spoken or written word.

Then—with the advance of science and technology—movies, television and radio extended the range and audience of free expression. Moreover, cell phones, teleconferencing, discs, satellites, the Internet and social networking (like Twitter and Facebook) brought new ways of communication.

Along with these new modes of free expression comes opinion polling. Opinion polls, scientifically done, play a great role in democratic societies. They not only reflect but often also shape the people’s view. They sometimes influence voters in making their eventual election choices, in the same manner as campaign speeches, television commercials and cyberspace social networking.

In 1998, the Commission on Elections restrained the SWS from conducting an exit poll and the ABS-CBN Broadcasting Network from disseminating publicly the result of the poll. It reasoned that the exit polls might confuse the public because the poll results may conflict with the actual count that would be made several weeks later. At that time, our elections were done manually and the national results could not be known till after several weeks. On the other hand, the exit poll results could be issued and disseminated almost instantly.

Supreme Court’s role. Aggrieved, SWS and ABS-CBN brought suit in the Supreme Court. After hearing the parties, the Court (in ABS-CBN v. Commission on Elections, Jan. 28, 2000) ruled that exit polls are an indispensable part of free expression and thus are entitled to constitutional protection. Being a new paradigm of free speech, opinion polling is a preferred right standing on a higher level than substantive economic freedoms or other liberties. I had the honor of writing that trail-blazing decision.

A subsequent case (SWS v. Comelec, May 5, 2001) reversed another order of the Comelec that banned the publication of poll surveys conducted before the election (as distinguished from exit polls which are taken immediately after the voters cast their ballots).

Prior to these two decisions, the role of election polling in many countries was not recognized. For instance, in Singapore, it was banned and in Mexico, it was a criminal offense to release—within eight days before an election—a survey predicting a winner.

Mangahas brought his legal victories in the Philippines to the World Association for Public Opinion Research (Wapor) that in turn trumpeted them to the whole planet. Their advocacy resulted in the international acceptance of opinion polling as a new paradigm of free expression. Indeed, if one columnist or one broadcaster could not be prohibited from writing or airing a personal view, how can any freedom-loving nation ban the scientific survey and publication of the collective opinion of an entire population?

Without his knowledge, Mangahas was nominated for this award by Wapor president Tom Smith, his Chicago batch-mate Nita Salvador-Burris, and me.

 

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